Ten Great Westerns (That You Probably Haven't Seen)
The Western is a uniquely American genre. It shows us the best of the American spirit, our capacity for building a new society away from the conventions of Europe and it holds a mirror to our most brutal and worst impulses for vengeance and conquest. Many say the genre is dead but new Westerns crop up at a steady pace and prove that this is not true. We are not as naïve and idealistic as we once were about our past but the themes of the Western still obsess us. What follows is ten westerns that have been overlooked over the years that I think are some of the finest examples of the genre. When looking at this list it is amazing how mutable the genre has been to the concerns of different directors and different time periods. Even so, it is also easy to see that each of these films has a quality that has stood the test of time, an appeal to the human spirit that might be universal.
The Big Sky (1952)
Director Howard Hawks made quite a few westerns in his career, including the classic John Wayne vehicles Red River and Rio Bravo but few reflected his interest in male bonding and friendships more than this film. Considered a minor Hawks work by most critics, it is still better than most of the Westerns of the period even though it has its flaws. Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin join a trade expedition and bond along the way but their friendship is tested when they both fall for a beautiful Blackfeet Indian woman. (Elizabeth Threatt) Hawks often dealt with the conflict of loyalty that men feel between their jobs and male friends and the settling down with the women in their lives. In this way Hawks may have created what is now satirically referred to as “bromance” and this might be one of the finest examples of male buddy movies ever made.
Rancho Notorious (1952)
Revenge was one of the themes that most obsessed director Fritz Lang and it also is a theme that appears frequently in the western. Arthur Kennedy plays a man who wants revenge after his fiancée is murdered and discovers that the perpetrators may be holed up at a sanctuary for outlaws run by a former showgirl. (Marlene Dietrich) He infiltrates the group of outlaws but his revenge might come at a price. Many find the films that director Lang made after leaving Germany for the US to be inferior to his early classics like Metropolis and M but I’m not one of them. While this film is less polished than those masterpieces it feels much more personal than most of Lang’s films. One of the movies virtues is watching Dietrich, who specializes in playing tough man-eaters, in one of her best and most memorable roles.
Johnny Guitar (1954)
While the western is a genre that usually puts a heavy emphasis on masculinity, in Johnny Guitar it is the women that drive the plot. Sterling Hayden plays the title character who has come back to his former lover, (Joan Crawford) a saloon owner with a volatile relationship with the local community. When her rival (Mercedes McCambridge) accuses her of being involved in a robbery the two find themselves taking on the law in order to save her saloon and ultimately her neck. Director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place) famously made films about individuals vs. a hostile society and this is one of his best takes on that theme as well as one of his best examinations of traditional gender roles.
Ride the High Country (1962)
Director Sam Peckinpah would completely reinvent the Western in his bloody masterpiece The Wild Bunch but here in his first film he is already establishing a unique take on the Western mythos. Two aging former lawmen (Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea) take a job guarding a gold shipment and reflect on their how their lives have led them to this point. Peckinpah is interested in the western myth as youthful idealism now being dissected by these old pros who may have lost sight of their original ideals. The cinematography is stunning and while nowhere near as bloody as later Peckinpah films, the director was already forming his style of juxtaposing brutal violence with aesthetic beauty.
Little Big Man (1970)
Directed by Arthur Penn, (Bonnie and Clyde) Little Big Man is an epic satire of the western myth with Dustin Hoffman as a Caucasian raised by native American, recounting his history to a historian as a 121 year old man. The film is both savage and funny in its attack on America’s idealized history of itself and criticizes the genocide of the Native Americans, equating it both to the Vietnam War and the Holocaust. The film also pokes fun at other Western movies and their portrayal of gunfighters and glorification of violence. These themes would later be explored in a number of revisionist westerns, including those of Clint Eastwood both as a star and director, but Little Big Man was a truly revolutionary film, giving a unique vision of the western and its conventions.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
Between 1970 and 1977, no American film director was more prolific or more brilliant than Robert Altman and this masterpiece is his unique take on the Western genre. Warren Beatty plays a gambler who comes to a small mining town and with the help of a madam of a brothel (Julie Christie) turns it from a tired mining village to a boom town. When big business interests come in the two must either sell out or deal with a “hostile takeover.” Altman’s film is a scathing indictment of corporate takeover of the individual entrepreneur which is more relevant today than ever. The film’s look tries to reflect the realities of actual frontier life and the haunting score by Leonard Cohen portrays the films dark message perfectly.
The Beguiled (1971)
Not technically a western, many consider it more an example of Southern Gothic, Don Siegel’s The Beguiled still relates to the genre through the presence of star Clint Eastwood and its civil war era setting. Eastwood plays an injured soldier who is nursed back to health when he is found by a student at an isolated school for girls. He casually indulges the affections of the students and faculty until he finds that women can be just as dangerous as men. Some commentators have accused the film of misogyny, but the Eastwood character is a playful satire of his usual persona of tough guy and sex symbol and mirrors themes that Eastwood would explore in his later films as director where the darker side of masculine archetypes is a common theme.
Four of the Apocalypse (1975)
Saying that this is a “great” film might be a bit of a stretch, unlike the other films on this list, but this spaghetti western by B-movie maker Lucio Fulci is a camp classic that deserves appreciation for its inspired lunacy. Fulci is hardly a great filmmaker but this makes for one his most entertaining films, with the sheer weirdness of 70s psychedelica meshing uncomfortably with the classic western archetypes. Ghosts and hallucinogens play into the plot and Fulci heaps on the characteristic violence that he is known to use in his horror films. The result is a must see for the midnight movie set even if it leaves most audience members scratching their heads in confusion. This would make a great double feature with Alejandro Jodorowky’s absurdist western El Topo. (see underground cinema hub.)
Dead Man (1996)
Indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch was best known for his low budget, mostly plotless, films about oddball characters experiencing varying degrees of culture clash when he made this strange “mystic western.” Johnny Depp stars as a meek accountant named William Blake who gets in trouble when he spends the night with the girlfriend of a violent killer. On the run, he meets a Native American named “Nobody” (Gary Farmer) who quotes the poet William Blake and serves as his guide. An eclectic supporting cast including: Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, Gabriel Bryne, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton, John Hurt, Lance Henricksen and Iggy Pop play an intriguing mix of oddball characters. Many consider this surreal film to be the “ultimate postmodern western.” Neil Young contributed the soundtrack and its jangly guitar chords.
The Proposition (2005)
Set in the Australian outback, rather than the American west, this bloody and brilliant film contains all the elements of a great western. Guy Pearce plays an outlaw who is offered a chance to be cleared of all his crimes if he agrees to kill a violent sociopath. (Danny Huston) He has nine days to find him or his brother will be hanged. The brutality of the film is unsparing and has none of the romance that we often see in classic American Westerns. Our hero is deeply flawed, our villain is a sadistic psychopath and even the lawmen are amoral opportunists. This is one of the most honest portrayals of life in frontier society ever made, while at the same time being one of the most exciting and disturbing thrillers in recent memory. Director John Hillcoat, went on to direct the equally bleak adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road.